“Everything about our mechanism of love and connection is based on proximity,” said Lisa Diamond, University of Utah professor and researcher of developmental psychology and health psychology. Diamond’s research focuses on sexual orientation development, sexual identity and bonding.
“Love is a proximity-seeking drive. When you love someone you reach out to them, you pull them close to you,” she said in a phone interview.
In a time of social distancing and possible quarantine, however, touching others is discouraged and increasingly more dangerous as the count of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, cases rise to 806 according to the Utah Department of Health.
State and Health officials are encouraging everyone who can stay home to do so and those who have to go to stay 6 feet apart from each other and take precautions.
On Friday, March 27, Mayor Erin Mendenhall signed a fifth proclamation, which gave Gov. Gary Herbert the force of law in Salt Lake City. The proclamation went into effect at midnight on Friday and will last for 30 days.
This places a barrier to those seeking new relationships and building connections, and for those who are currently in a relationship, it provides a new challenge.
“This is such an unprecedented situation that I have no idea what going to happen. I don’t think anyone has ever tried to initiate relationships under a condition in which they’re literally supposed to stay 6 feet away from everyone in their life,” Diamond said.
“People who have already started dating and are in a very new relationship, I think that’s probably the hardest,” she said, “To suddenly go from that early kind of falling in love phase, where you really want to talk to them all the time, to not being able to see them at all, that sort of goes against everything in our brains and in our bodies.”
Diamond said putting a sudden stop to visiting and seeing each other as much as possible is just plain painful.
Despite the obstacles they are facing, however, Diamond said, studies of newly involved couples show any kind of obstacle to spending time together can prolong the ‘heady in love feeling.’
She said there is typically a two-year period at the beginning of a relationship where couples want to be around each other all the time, which calms down after the relationship ages.
“So the one upside is that for folks who are in that newly-in-love stage, although it’s painful to be apart, you’ll probably be in that in love that stage a little bit longer because this big wrench was thrown in, preventing you from being together.”
Akinwole Brown, who recently entered a new relationship, said in a phone call that the only issue he sees right now is being restricted due to social distancing. He said at this stage of a relationship, which is fairly new — normally he would take this time to learn more about his partner and get in “comfortable phase.”
“Every time we do see each other is a time where we gotta cram everything in one little moment. We do appreciate our moments that we share a little more,” Brown said. “It has taken away from moments where we can gain a little bit more in our relationship. Whether that would be the essentials of learning [about] each other, picking up each other’s habits.”
Now, most of their dates have been limited to once a week, when they take a car ride and drive around since everything has closed down. Brown said their relationship isn’t big on texting, so they appreciate the time they do spend time together.
Brown said he has no idea how it would affect his relationship if Salt Lake City were to go on lockdown. This situation has taught him to cherish relationships in any form because “you never know when you’ll see them again. Or if they’ll be taken away.”
“Social distancing doesn’t have to mean disconnecting,” Tinder, a popular dating app, said in a mass distributed message to its users. While people self-isolate and social distance because of the COVID-19, Tinder said they have seen longer chats in areas most impacted.
“We hope to be a place for connection during this time but it’s important to stress that now is not the time to meet IRL with your match,” the message continued.
For people who are continuing to connect via dating apps, this transition is changing expectations of what communication looks like. Most dating apps, like Hinge, encourage its users to set up virtual dates through Facetime, Zoom or whatever users are comfortable with.
Hinge said in a statement that 70% of its users are down for a digital date.
Diamond said meeting one anther is typically a rather new goal of a relationship, and having to put in-person meetings on hold for an indefinite period of time would be a barrier to building a connection. She said that if she was seeking a relationship, she would probably not date during this time.
“I think folks who are actively dating will have to get used to using these technologies and having a virtual dinner,” Diamond said.
In addition to switching up how people date, Diamond said this could be a formative experience for those who are just entering the scene and it may change the way individuals date — it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
For those in established relationships, who are now stuck together, she said that this will be a learning experience. Some may find they are even more delighted with one another, and others might find the opposite.
“There is nothing like spending 24 hours a day together to really give you a different picture of your partner,” she said, “I think people just have to remember to be gentle with themselves and with one another.”
Even if you have a great relationship, Diamond said every person has different levels of tolerance and neither person is wrong about how much time they want to spend together. She talked about how she and her partner could never imagine owning a business and working together but some people plan their whole lives together.
“The trick is to find a balance that’s gonna keep you sane and sort of get you through this, and to remember that this is a really unusual situation,” she said.
Diamond said there is nothing more antithetical to the human experience than being separated, especially in times of stress.
“It’s almost like a big human experiment,” she said, “as a relationship researcher, I just kind of look at the world and think this is the biggest test that our species has ever faced.”